And the truth, as that poet understood it, did indeed explode. Not in a sudden detonation but in a sustained blast that lasted more than a quarter-century. The reverberations of Pope John Paul II's life and pontificate, the third longest in history, resounded through every nation on earth. They did their part to topple a superpower, helping free hundreds of millions of people. They reaffirmed the Roman Catholic message of salvation to millions more and may even have introduced it in some few parts of the world where it had not yet penetrated. And they boomed through the poet's own church. In the end, not every Catholic--certainly not every American Catholic--considered Pope John Paul II's explosion a joyful noise unto the Lord. But the 264th occupant of the throne of St. Peter was no more silenced by their misgivings than by the assassin's bullet he survived in 1981 or the progressive ailments, including Parkinson's disease, that he withstood for at least a decade. He pursued God's truth with a fearless, anachronistic, nearly stunning purity of purpose, and the world was left to adapt as it might.
So powerful was his vision that even his death, while it occasioned profound mourning among at least a billion people worldwide, cried out to be interpreted in Christological terms. After all, he had already turned his life's final decade into an object lesson in the dignity of suffering, whereby a stooped shuffle and a slurred voice could be understood, as he once wrote, as an extended moment of "transcendence," in which supporters glimpsed the glory of Christ's sacrifice for humanity. Similarly, so incandescent was his faith that believers, through tears, could easily understand his death not as an ending but rather as a well-earned passage into the company of his God and his beloved mother Mary.
In life, no other great figure in the second half of the 20th century seemed to inhabit his role so utterly--yet in so many different ways. There was the itinerant evangelist with the lit-from-within smile, conducting his never-ending crusade. There was the mystic who, as an observer noted, "makes decisions on his knees." There was the subtle geopolitician who refuted Stalin's famous sneer "How many divisions has the Pope?" at the expense of the dictator's heirs. The moral philosopher who lectured at Harvard. And, finally, the suffering servant. "He was a thoroughly, radically committed Christian disciple who really believed, as he put it, that 'Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life,'" says George Weigel, a biographer of the Pope. "The rest followed from that."
But for many among the U.S.'s 67 million Catholics, significant qualifiers attached to John Paul's career. Between the rise of the hero disposed to combat one of his age's great scourges and his undaunted denouement was an unsettling second act, as more liberal believers realized that their shepherd could be autocratic, hardheaded and disapproving. For such disaffected followers, John Paul was not unlike another great Slavic moralist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, lionized while his prophetic voice was raised against the Soviet behemoth and less welcome when he turned it on the victorious West. James Carroll, a former priest who has written frequently on the church and the Pope, says, "Americans clearly loved this man's goodness. But we were very, very uncomfortable with his absolute claims to moral certitude."